By: Marlene Affeld
Wolves are once again protected in the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States. On Tuesday, October 14th, 2008, a court victory for environmentalists returned gray wolves to the endangered species list.
“The northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf is returned to the list of endangered and threatened species, with each of its component populations having the same status under the Endangered Species Act” said Federal Judge Donald Molly, in a written ruling handed down in Missoula, Montana. Twelve groups had challenged the United States Government’s decision in February 2008 to delist the gray wolf in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Passionate in their commitment to protect wolves, the challengers refuted claims that the reintroduction of gray wolves had been a success. It was feared that delisting the species would lead to hunting of wolves, sanctioned by the authority of the individual states.
Before the early settlers arrived, gray wolves ranged across most of the continental United States. As the settlers moved in and encroached on the wilderness, the once massive herds of bison, elk and deer were scattered or annihilated. Natural predators, the carnivorous wolves began to attack domestic livestock and the settlers retaliated. US government agencies and ranchers paid a generous bounty on the pelts of wolves trapped or shot by hunters. Ironically, wildlife studies have shown that wolves have minimal negative impact on deer and elk populations, since they feed primarily on sick, weak or disabled individuals.
Until the introduction of the species in the early 1980s, gray wolves had all but disappeared in the mainland United States. At that time wolves began colonizing northwestern Montana near Glacier Park. In 1995 and 1996, sixty-six wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park in the hope that they would survive and multiply.
Since the release, the wolf population has increased through dispersal and natural reproduction. US Forest Service studies report over 1200 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The gray wolf or timber wolf is a social animal and lives in family groupings called packs, which bond together to hunt large prey and to defend their territory against other wolves. Montana has 73 packs with 415 wolves. This estimate includes 38 breeding pairs. Wolves normally have 4-6 pups per litter. Mineral County conservatively reports that there are 36 wolves in 7 packs. Mineral County represents less than one percent of Montana's land mass, but has 18 percent of the state's wolf population.
The average gray wolf pack is about 6-8 animals. The pack grows and shrinks dependent on the season. In the spring and summer months, wolves focus on raising their young and stay in small groups to feed their pups. In the winter months, wolves form larger packs to facilitate hunting and traveling. Wolves range over large distances with a territory size that varies from 50 to 1,000 square miles.
The timber wolf is a magnificent creature. Canis Lupus plays a critical role in the natural ecosystem by restoring balance to Montana’s diverse wildlife population. The unique experience of encountering a wolf in the wild is a rare gift, a breath-taking, heart-pounding moment that few will ever have the opportunity to savor.
With the reinstatement of the endangered species designation, perhaps the midnight howl of a gray wolf will be heard by future generations.